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17 Dec 2002 : Column 748—continued

Dr. John Pugh (Southport): Is the hon. Gentleman categorically disagreeing with the Minister, who said that a step change was required and would be secured? He just said that no big change was needed.

Andrew Bennett: I do not mind if we claim that it is a step change if that makes people behave in a slightly different way, but I firmly believe that the legislation is not all that necessary. What is important is the administrative change that has been promised. I do not think that we should complain that the Government have backed away from their Green Paper and come up with a much more realistic approach; indeed, they should be given credit for that. We should be proud of the fact that they published a Green Paper and then listened to the responses, including those of the Select Committee. I think that as a result we have better legislation, and I hope that better administrative action from the Department will follow.

Let me deal briefly with the myth about the planning system. When the Select Committee was considering the Green Paper, the director general of the CBI told us very firmly that, according to survey after survey, the planning system was destroying our competitiveness. When we asked for evidence, he could not provide it. During this morning's sitting, the best another CBI representative could do was tell us that the CBI had asked MORI to conduct a further survey, which had

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shown that the planning system was a problem. When we asked how important the problem was, we were told that it ranked 13th out of 15.

Let us be clear about this. Our planning system does not limit productivity. For one thing, many companies never use it; levels of investment are much more important to them. The planning system does not make a huge difference to our effectiveness.

I think that the culture change, rather than the step change, is important. We need to ensure that planning departments are enablers rather than disablers—that they work hard, from the start of a planning application or, indeed, before the application is made—to ensure that the proposal is in the interests of both developer and local community. That comes down to the question of resources. When we had an exchange in the Select Committee about whether the extra money would be ring-fenced, I thought Lord Rooker was pretty good: he said that it would not be ring-fenced, but that he could guarantee that it would be spent on planning. If that can be achieved, full marks.

There are some problems, however. It is important for the money to be spent, but it can be spent only if there are people with the necessary skills. Sadly we have run down the number of planners in the country, and we have also run down respect for them. I hope that during the Bill's passage the Government will tell us more about how we are to secure more planners. To an extent, we must consider the way in which geography is taught in schools and the fact that some pupils are pushed into making a choice at 15. Far more should be encouraged to continue with geography, which can enable them subsequently to work in the earth sciences or in planning departments. I fear that, in that regard, the national curriculum is too prescriptive.

Mr. Llwyd: Does the hon. Gentleman know of research recently carried out in Scotland? I think that it is something to do with Edinburgh university. When all the planning students in a certain year were asked about their hopes, not one said that he or she hoped to work in a planning department.

Andrew Bennett: That is worrying. We need to give planning back its status. Nowadays everyone criticises planners rather than recognising their important role.

We need more resources and we need more planners, but it is also important for the planners to think in terms of enabling. The Select Committee took evidence from the City of London corporation, which is pretty well resourced, about its attempts to get its planners to talk to developers at an early stage and show them how they can deal with the regulations and the planning process. Many more local authorities should do that, especially when it comes to building control. Some of the criticism of the planning system is not about the allocation of particular sites, but about the nitty-gritty: how can extractor fans be installed so that they do not disturb local people, for instance, and how can it be ensured that in summer, when doors are left open, people on an estate do not suffer from the noise?

Mr. Drew: When people try to find out what decisions are being made, they are often frustrated by the absence of contemporaneous reports of meetings with

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developers. That means that people requiring information receive it only when a development is under way.

Andrew Bennett: May I suggest that my hon. Friend looks at the evidence that we took this morning, particularly the Minister's response on this issue about how far one can get greater transparency at the beginning of the process? To a certain extent, the Minister understood the problem, and was coming up with part of the solution.

Alan Simpson: In relation to his point about enhancing the role of planning officers and the authority that they carry with them, has my hon. Friend's Committee considered the points being made by the police? They are talking about not just where one puts the fans, but the role of planning officers in designing out crime. The point has been made that the Bill would be strengthened if planning processors were required to address section 17 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which the Government introduced and which the police are saying has made an enormous difference to communities and to commercial interests in designing out the costs of crime at an early stage in the planning process.

Andrew Bennett: I accept that point. It is a question of bringing to bear on the planning process all the resources of the local authority—the police, planners and others—so that we get good developments that do not create problems but set out to solve them.

I have talked about the problems of training and I should like to press the Minister on compulsory purchase orders. The parts of the Bill dealing with CPOs are some of the most welcome. Part of the problem is that local authorities got out of the habit of using CPOs and now find them cumbersome. Some of those who worked for local authorities during the 1960s and knocked out a CPO almost every day would say that the legislation has not changed much, but that lack of familiarity is the problem. The problem that has been put to me by local authorities is that, often, one does not want to have to go right through the CPO process. They want to persuade people to settle so that they can buy them out without having to go through that process. The problem for some local authorities is that they put together a back-to-back deal so that the land is immediately passed on to a developer. If local authorities hold the land for only 24 hours, they can stand the interest charges, but if they buy six or nine months in advance of the CPO, they have a problem with the financing. I hope that we will look at the law relating to CPOs and at some of the issues about financing.

In the Select Committee this morning, the Minister gave us the valuable assurance that the regulations will be available before the Bill goes into Committee. That will make scrutiny much easier. I hope that at some point the Minister will explain the transition. One of my reservations about having legislation involves the transition. The present system can be cumbersome, but people understand it, and in three or four years we will have the new system that people will have got used to.

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Between those stages there is the transition and we do not want a hiatus so that obtaining planning permission is more difficult during the next couple of years.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee for giving way. I do not agree with everything that he has said, but his speech has been thoughtful and well considered and he does seem to be asking for greater certainty in the planning system. Will he comment on clause 40, which abolishes outline planning permission and introduces a statement of development principles instead? That would be a far less certain procedure and would not give businesses the ability to plan their developments with certainty.

Andrew Bennett: One cannot say categorically yes or no to that. We will have to see how things evolve. That is very much in the area of guidance. If the Government produce clear guidance, such problems may be solved.

I was about to give a firm thank you from my constituents to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister for turning down the development at Audenshaw, Waterside park, formerly Kingswater park. Having a business park beside the motorway would encourage people to drive around the motorway to work. I also thank him for his decision to turn down the proposal for a large IKEA store in Stockport, which would generate traffic. We should use the planning system to reduce the need for travel. Our society is far too fragmented and people are encouraged to do a great deal of travelling. For most people, spending time in a traffic jam on a motorway is not attractive.

It is important that the planning system works quickly. I hope that the Government will guarantee to set an example from the top and that Ministers will reach decisions quickly, setting that example for local authorities and the planning system. We should remember that our planning system was a jewel in the crown and, with this legislation, we should ensure that it continues to sparkle.

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